Olen Steinhauer‘s latest espionage novel, The American Spy ends with the line “The question is, are you in or are you out”. This is the question that runs through his character’s psyche, for the Milo Weaver books are all about the shifting sands of duplicitous relationships between men and woman, world powers and government agencies as they seek to protect what they have.
I am delighted that Maxim Jakubowski, noir crime writer, publisher and crime entrepreneur, put me on to Olen Steinhauer. Olen is the author of eight espionage novels. The early ones were dry procedural investigations set in Eastern Europe in the years following 1945. They were the stuff of Robert Harris and Alan Furst. But if you want to get behind the smoke and mirrors of today’s realpolitik look no further than the Milo Weaver novels.
Milo Weaver is late 30s, he needs cigarette patches and has a toilet trouble from an internal injury. He has been written off by his superiors and the enemy as a dead man. Yet he is a survivor. He once worked for a secret department or off-shoot of the CIA called the Tourists. It employs agents are intelligent, discreet, will do anything and that operate all over the world. Weaver main skill is that he able to out-wit most of the power brokers and master-spies by claiming to work for several sides at once. His real occupation is an operative he is a cold-blooded assassin. But few know the real Milo, partly because they know one of his many alias names, made out to different nationalities. He also has a wife and daughter in the USA. Being a family man makes him vulnerable.
The plot in The American Spy is as complex and dense as you are likely to find in a modern spy novel. It follows on from the previous story (Nearest Exit) and the disaster of nearly all the Department of Tourism being wiped out by the machinations of clever but overweight Chinese spy-master Xin Zhu. Milo got away, as did his boss Alan Drummond. The early part of the novel is about the dealings inside the Chinese corridors of power. The question is seriously posed that Xin Zhu had been too ruthless in smashing the American spy network that was undermining Chinese ambitions. They feared that the Americans might do something. But all was internal posturing, or was it. Then Milo’s boss goes on a revenge mission leading the few tourists that survived. But he goes missing in a London hotel. Milo tries to find out what happened and avoid the Chinese spies that are everywhere.
How the characters work as spies and people is what makes these novels a level or two above most attempts at espionage thrillers. The women such as German spy mistress Erika Schwartz or assassin Leticia Jones are well drawn and believable. Steinhauer is well worth reading if you like Le Carre or Deighton. But be warned. You will find deception and moles, but this author puts down his own mark.
A note in the New York Times reveals that George Clooney’s production company has picked up rights to the first of Steinhauer’s Milo Weaver trilogy, The Tourist. Clooney himself is scheduled to play agent Milo Weaver. Amazing! I guess I was not wrong to think that Milo looked and sounded a little like George!